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“Great Joy for All People”

Luke 2:8-18
Bob DeGray
December 23, 2001

Key Sentence

The great joy of Christ’s birth reaches even the lowest circumstances.

Outline

I. Even the lowest can hear the good news! (Luke 2:8-12)
II. Even the highest can rejoice in it! (Luke 2:11-12)
III. All who hear it should see for themselves and be amazed! (Luke 2:13-18)


Message

        It is still dark when Mary awakes, and for a moment she is not sure what woke her. Jesus is sleeping peacefully in the manger by her bed, and Joseph is drowsing near the embers of the fire. But something has disturbed her, and she soon realizes that there is a faint noise of singing and a faint glow of light, both coming from beyond the nearby hills. Though she cannot make out the words, even to her untrained hear the harmony is extraordinary, the sound pure and holy. Soon, too soon, it is gone.

        Mary is just dropping off to sleep again when she hears movement in the dark, just outside the stable, and then voices. She can’t make out what they are saying, but from the sound there must be several of them. She puts her hand on Joseph’s arm and quietly shakes him awake. Without a noise he rises and moves toward the entrance to the cave. As Mary’s eyes follow his movement, she sees several men silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky. They appear rough and unkempt, and she hopes they will simply move on. Then she hears one weary voice above the others: “I don’t care what you think you remember, I say we come in the morning when we can see.”

        “How can you even think such a thing?” another voice demands. “This is the chance of a lifetime and you want to wait until morning. You’ve got to be out of your mind!”

        Suddenly the stillness of the night is broken by a baby’s whimper. Though it is hardly more than a whisper, there is no mistaking the sound. Mary moves quickly to hush baby Jesus. But it is no use - the whimper turns into a full-fledged wail, carrying clearly to the milling men. With a hint of triumph, one man turns to his companions and says “I told you they had to be here.” As they turn toward the cave, Joseph steps out. “What can I do for you?” he asks, his voice shaking. “We have come to see the Savior, Christ the Lord who was born this night in the city of David.”

        Joseph steps back in amazement. Mary knows that he hasn’t told anyone in Bethlehem of God’s promises about Jesus. Disregarding the potential danger, she calls out “How do you know this?” The men - obviously shepherds by their appearance - stoop to enter the cave. On each rough face is a sense of wonder and awe, and as they see the baby each falls silent. Several drop to their knees. Mary reaches into the manger and takes Jesus into her arms, uncovering his little face so that the men can see.
        Finally, one shepherd seems to rouse himself. “Excuse me, young lady” he whispers. “My friends and I are a bit dazed at the moment. We’ve been tending our flocks of sacrificial lambs on the far side of those hills. In the darkest and coldest part of the night our huddled quiet was broken by the terrifying appearance of God’s angel.”

        Well, you know the rest of the shepherd’s story. The reason we want to remember it this morning is to see what impact it has on the Christmas we’ve always longed for. How are you doing on that, by the way? Is this year turning out just a little bit better than average? Have you had a little more time for reflection? A little more focus on God and Jesus? Or has your busyness and the stresses of the season once again overwhelmed your focus? If you are doing better, great. If not, don’t give up, because these verses remind us that the great joy of Christ’s birth reaches even the lowest circumstances. The good news those lowly shepherds heard is still good news to us today no matter how stressful
or distracting our personal circumstances.

I. Even the lowest can hear the good news! (Luke 2:8-12)

        The shepherds remind us that even the lowest can hear the good news. Luke 2:8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

        Shepherds in the fields, doing their job, taking care of the sheep. Why does the angel appear to them? I suspect God had several reasons. First, shepherd was a common occupation near Bethlehem. King David had been a shepherd there years before. If God were coming to Houston at night, he might well visit workers at the chemical plants, because they’re the ones out at night around here. Second, there is at least a verbal link to the whole array of biblical truth that teaches “the Lord is my shepherd.” These shepherds remind us of those promises, and especially of Micah 5:2, the Bethlehem prophecy, which says “but you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.... He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God, and he will be their peace.” So Bethlehem is associated with a Messiah who will be a shepherd like David.

        But more than either of these, shepherds probably represent those who are lowly. Even though Israel had always had shepherds, they were somewhat despised. They were widely considered thieves, probably because of their nocturnal hours. Though they worked with pure, sacrificial lambs, they themselves were considered unclean, and some scholars have said they weren’t even allowed to offer sacrifices in the temple. On top of all this, they lived in humble circumstances: their jobs were menial even by the modest standards of the time. But our God, forever and always, is a God who cares for the lowly and the despised and the needy. He chose a poverty stricken girl to bear his son, and he made him be born in a manger and announced his birth not to kings in palaces or religious leaders in temples, but to low, despised shepherds in the fields because he wanted to send his message of good news to the least of the people of Israel and to all the lowly and despised people of the world.

        Now when did all this take place? We’ve already talked about the year and decided it may have been 4 b.c. But what time of year was it? We celebrate Christmas near the winter solstice, primarily because the early Christian church, influenced by several pagan holidays, placed it there. But when was it, really? We don’t know for sure, but I’ve run across a couple of arguments that place Christmas in the fall.

        See if you can follow this as I sketch it quickly. We know that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist was a priest whose priestly division Abijah, served three times a year in the temple, plus festivals. If the angel appeared to him during the first of those rotations, it would have been around June - in the Jewish month of Silvan. So John the Baptist would have been conceived in June. Six months later, in say December, Mary visited Elizabeth, and that was shortly after Mary conceived Jesus. That would place the birth of Jesus in about September in our calendar.

        Does anything else support a September rather than December date for Christmas? Well, the shepherds were abiding in the fields. They generally did that from about April to October. In the winter they took their individual flocks home and kept them in the sheepfold. So the fall is more reasonable than winter for the shepherds.

        Theologically, we also know that the death and resurrection of Jesus was focused on the Jewish Spring festivals - Passover and Pentecost. It makes sense that the birth of Christ would also be associated with a festival, maybe one of the Fall festivals. Think about the Feast of Tabernacles that occurs in late September: it involved living in booths to remember what God had done in rescuing his people from Egypt and providing for them in the desert. What better time to send Jesus, the bread of life and the living water, than while the people were celebrating God’s earlier provision of manna and water? The Gospel of John hints at this timing when it says “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14, where ‘made his dwelling’ is literally ‘tabernacled’ among us. Did the Divine Son come during the Feast of Tabernacles to live in a human tent among us? It isn’t conclusive evidence, but if I was setting a date for Christmas, I would choose late September.

        So the shepherds are in the fields, and God sends an angel, possibly once again the angel Gabriel. When he appears to the shepherds, they are terrified: literally, fearing they feared. Even more than the usual angelic appearance, this one seems to have brought dismay. It may be the angel revealed more than the usual amount of glory. So the angel says what angels always have to say: ‘fear not’, and then shares his message ‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’

        Notice that it is not good news for only some, but for all people, high and low, rich and poor, even Jew and Gentile. No matter who you are and no matter where your life has been or what your present circumstances, the birth of Jesus is good news because it is evidence of God’s great love for you by which he rescued you.

        The message is summarized wonderfully in verse 11: ‘Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ Here are three key pieces of good news. First, this child is the Savior, a truth that pervades the New Testament. In Matthew, the reason for naming him Jesus is this: ‘he will save his people from their sins.’ John says ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ Peter says ‘salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’ Paul says ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.’

        But what is salvation? To save, as we’ve said so often, is to rescue, to reach out the hand, to throw the lifeline when someone is drowning. It means to heal - heal the disease in a person’s life, as Jesus did. And it means to cleanse from sin - ‘He will save his people from their sins.’ In fact, sin is like a toxic poison that we take some of every day, and it’s killing us, but we don’t know it. Jesus is the one who has diagnosed our problem and rescues us from the poison, and heals the disease it causes.

        He is Savior. He is also ‘the Christ.’ Remember what that means? Christos is Greek for ‘Messiah’, the one God had promised to send, the one the people expected to come as the redeemer of Israel. The shepherds may have been ignorant of the finer points of religious behavior as explained by the Pharisees, but even they would know what God meant by this: ‘the one who culminates God’s plan of redemption has arrived.”

        More even than that, he is Christ the Lord. To say ‘Lord’ this way is to say ‘God’, to call God by his personal name. This Savior is no mere man, but is the Divine Lord. Over and over in the Gospels Jesus is called ‘Lord’, and though many times this is just a polite reference, it became much more than that, so that Thomas can say ‘My Lord and my God.’ That’s the meaning here. God has come. He is with us.

        Now if we put this all together, what do we have? He is Savior, He is Messiah, He is Lord. The God of the universe has come as promised to redeem and save all kinds of people. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. Can you imagine any circumstance you might find yourself in that wouldn’t be lightened if you really knew that the God of the universe had come as promised to rescue you. He has.

        Next, as we have already seen once or twice in Luke, God authenticates the truth of the message: ‘This will be a sign to you, you will find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Even when the angel said that the Savior was born today, I doubt that any of the shepherds pictured the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in hay, in a feeding trough in a smelly stable. Yet this was the sign they were told to look for - this would be the concrete evidence that what the angel had said was true.

        Think about it. God cares for the lowly and the lowest among men. Jesus will later affirm that he has been sent “to preach good news to the poor, ... to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” He will teach that the poor in spirit are the ones who will be blessed, because they will see God. He will liken himself to a shepherd who has come to seek and save his lost sheep. God cares for those in the lowest of circumstances, and Jesus comes to rescue and redeem those in need.

        But if all this is true, isn’t it true that he also cares for you in your needs? Even if it’s just the stresses of the Christmas season, even if it’s just the busyness, and the strained relationships, even if its just your financial precariousness, highlighted at this time of year, he cares about your needs. And if you are one who has suffered losses this year, the loss of a loved one or of a relationship then this good news is for you. The great joy of Christ’s birth can penetrate your greatest losses today and in the future.

II. Even the highest can rejoice in it! (Luke 2:11-12)

        Even the lowest can hear the good news. Even the highest can rejoice in it. Verses 13 and 14: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

        One angel was enough for almost every angelic event recorded in Scripture. One angel was enough for the announcements to Mary and Zechariah, enough for most of Daniel’s visions, enough to rescue Peter from prison. At time we see two angels: visiting Abraham, announcing the resurrection. Rarely do we see many angels: ministering to Jesus in his temptations, worshiping before the throne of God, and here - announcing the incarnation of the Son. ‘Suddenly a great multitude of the army of heaven appeared with the angel.’ That’s literal, a great multitude of the army of heaven. Fortunately this army was not on a war-like assignment.

        How many angels were there? The Greek word is used for a number beyond counting - too many to wrap your mind around. And what angel was going to refuse the opportunity to go and celebrate this event, the central event in the history of God’s creation? If God gave an open invitation to the angels, then I suspect every single one was there, and we know from Revelation that’s multitudes of multitudes. And if all the angels overflow with joy at this event, should we sit by sullen, simply because of some circumstance in our lives? No way. We should join in the joy.

        “Glory to God in the Highest.” A classic two-sided phrase of praise. The angels are not only saying that they praise the glorious God whose throne is in the highest heaven, but they are also saying that this event, this incarnation brings glory to the one who is already glorious. In other words, God has once again shown his glory through his works, he has shown his true character through his willingness to humble himself for the sake of men.

        When we offer God glory in our praises, we are not adding anything to what he already has, we are simply affirming that we see his character in his works. “Glory to God in the highest”. God in the highest is glorious, and I recognize his glory when I praise his glorious works, like the marvelous incarnation of Jesus my Lord.

        “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Peace. Isn’t that one of the things we’ve been longing for in this Christmas we’ve always longed for? Peace is one of the great gifts God has given us in Jesus. Through Jesus we find peace with God in the forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with a Holy Father. Through Jesus we find peace with each other, as he has removed the dividing walls that have separated us one from another and made us brothers and sisters. And through Jesus we find peace within, as the constant striving to be loved and to be righteous in our own power is replaced with a resting dependance on His power. The peace promised by the Bible is not the peace of a tranquil situation, though at times God allows that. But his peace is an inner rest that sustains us despite outward circumstances.

        This peace is for those ‘on whom his favor rests’ - that is, those who have received his grace by believing and trusting in His Son. As Elizabeth said to Mary ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord said will be accomplished.’ We receive his blessing and his peace when we believe what he has promised through Jesus - forgiveness of sins, newness of life, and hope of eternity

III. All who hear it should see for themselves and be amazed! (Luke 2:13-18)

        So even the lowest can hear the good news! Even the angels can rejoice in it. And finally, everyone who hears it should check it out. Verses 15 to 18: When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

        What did the shepherds do? They said “Oh, that’s nice” and sat back down with the sheep. That’s what many modern people might do. “What a nice religious sentiment. It’s so uplifting.” The end - no impact on life. Fortunately the shepherds were wiser than many today. When they heard the words ‘Unto you is born this day a Savior’ they recognized a personal challenge to faith. They had been told of a concrete sign that would verify this message and they decided to check out the truth: “Let’s go and see this thing!” And when they went, they found that it was exactly as announced. By the way, isn’t it a blessing that Jesus came in poverty? If the shepherds had been told that Jesus had been born in some palace of a Herod or a wealthy Sadducee or a righteous Pharisee, they wouldn’t have gone to check it out. If they had they probably wouldn’t have been allowed within 50 meters of the gate of the house or palace where this baby lay.

        But Jesus came to lie in a manger. He stayed in a cave where these shepherds had at one time penned their sheep. Mary and Joseph weren’t intimidating. Mary was a simple peasant girl like their wives or daughters. Joseph was a carpenter, and carpenters weren’t much higher in social standing than shepherds. Jesus came all the way down to their level, so that they could find him. Praise God that no matter what our circumstances, no matter how low we get, Jesus comes all the way down to us. He did it supremely on the cross, where he not only sympathized with our weaknesses, but actually took on our sin - was pierced by our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. He not only identified with the most sinful of us, but became sin for us.

        So what we need to do, more than anything else, is to check out whether his claims are true. We can check out the Scriptures to see if they are true, and then check out what they say as it challenges us to faith: Whether he really rose from the dead. Whether he really offered forgiveness and new life to those who believe. We can’t leave him in the manger - we need to test his whole life, his death, his resurrection and find them to be true. We need check it out, and then believe.

        That’s what the shepherds did. You can tell they believed because they went and told their neighbors in Bethlehem - their friends, their co-workers - that God had broken through into their need. Notice that they spread the word concerning what had been said to them about this child. Today that might be construed as politically incorrect. It’s OK for Christmas to be about a baby, but if it is about Christ, or about the one who is supposed to be Lord of someone’s life, or especially if it’s about ‘the Savior’, then you have to hush up - it’s not socially acceptable to mention these truths. But the shepherds weren’t PC. They went and told the people, and the people were amazed! We don’t know how the people reacted, but we hope they went and checked it out too - and found the great joy of this Incarnate Savior.

        He came to bring joy to those in the lowest circumstances. Let me close with a quote from Chuck Colson’s book ‘Kingdom’s in Conflict’. Remember that Colson was White House counsel to President Richard Nixon.“One brisk December night as I walked with the president from the West Wing of the White House to the Residence, Mr. Nixon was musing about what people wanted in their leaders. He slowed a moment, looking into the distance across the South Lawn, and said “The people really want a leader a little bigger than themselves, don’t they, Charles? There’s a certain aloofness, a power that’s exuded by great men that people feel and want to follow.”

        “But,” Colson continues, “Jesus Christ exhibited none of this self-conscious aloofness. He served others first. He spoke to those to whom no one spoke; he dined with the lowest members of society; he touched the untouchables; he washed his follower’s feet. He had no throne, no crown, no bevy of servants or armed guards. A borrowed manger and a borrowed tomb framed his earthly life.”

        Colson has nailed it. The great joy of Christ’s birth can touch you and touch me this Christmas because he humbled himself in order to reach those in the lowest circumstances. He came so that ordinary people like you and me could hear the angel’s message of Good News, so that we could seek him for ourselves and so that we could find him to be our Savior, our Christ, our Lord.